Saturday 31 December 2011

Vikings, Monks and Saxon Gold

A round up of the latest updates from some of the news stories featured on Clas Merdin.

Dorset Viking Mass Grave Update
Construction of the Weymouth Relief Road provided an opportunity for Oxford Archaeology to undertake archaeological investigation of Ridgeway Hill and Southdown Ridge.

The first excavation in 2008 revealed one of the main themes of the Ridgeway was its use as a burial site. Finds included a Bronze Age round barrow, four cist burials and three later Romano-British burials in addition to an Iron Age settlement. A group of five quarry pits contained crouched burials dated to the Neolithic period c. 4000 - 2400 BC. The quarry pits were first thought to be dated from prehistory, but it is now thought more likely that most, if not all, date from the Roman period, suggesting that chalk from the pits may have been used in the construction of the nearby Roman road. One of these pits had been used for the mass grave of over fifty Vikings raiders.

In June 2009,  a digger uncovered a burial pit of skulls and decapitated bodies during earthwork movements on Ridgeway Hill. Excavations uncovered a mass grave containing 54 headless bodies and 51 skulls. Many of the executed men suffered multiple wounds all thought to relate to the process of decapitation with evidence of fatal injuries to the skull and jaw as well as the upper spine.

Archaeologists were puzzled as to why there were more bodies than heads. This is probably due to some of the heads being taken away to be displayed as trophies or mounted as warnings to other would-be raiders. Further analysis of the skeletons has revealed:
  • The injuries on the skeletons indicate evidence that the decapitations had taken several blows, with one individual receiving six blows to the neck.
  • Initial results of carbon dating had indicated that the date of the burial was between 910 – 1030 AD. Further analysis of these results has now narrowed the probable date range down to between 970 and 1025 AD.
  • It has been suggested that the mass grave was probably the result of the conflict with invading Vikings that took place during the reign of the Saxon King Ethelred the Unready, 978 to 1016 AD, which resulted in a short-lived dynasty of Danish kings, including the famous Canute, occupying the English throne for some twenty years.
  • One of the Vikings buried in the pit had teeth that had been deliberately filed with horizontal grooves carved into two of his front teeth. The purpose of this practice is unknown but several similar instances have been recorded from contemporary burials in Scandinavia. Such filing may have been seen as a mark of honour to show their status as a warrior and may have given a new meaning to the expression 'cutting your teeth in battle'.
Filed teeth of one of the decapitated Vikings
All the finds from the Weymouth Relief Road site will be offered to Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

>> Mass Viking Execution in Dorset

Glastonbury Abbey Symposium
A one-day symposium hosted by Glastonbury Abbey explored new research into excavation archives 1908 – 1979. Previous studies of the Abbey’s pottery had identified early Roman, Anglo-Saxon, medieval and later material, but new finds indicate activity on the site as early as the Iron Age period which archaeologists had not realised were represented in the excavated pottery.

The study has shown that Middle Iron Age, Late Iron Age, late Roman and Post-Roman wares are also present. The new identifications show that the history of occupation on the site is much more prolonged than had been previously thought, extending back to the third or fourth centuries BC with new evidence for the the early Christian period from the late 4th or 5th centuries.

In 1981, Ralegh Radford, Director of Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey from 1951 – 1964, published an interim report suggesting a series of churches, a Saxon enclosure ditch, potentially the earliest cloister in Britain, and craft-working activities including unique glass furnaces. Several attempts at full publication were never completed. However, following Radford’s death in 1999, his excavation archive was deposited with the National Monuments Record at Swindon, making the publication of a full report a feasible proposition.

Research by the Archaeology Department at the University of Reading, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council revealed that the Abbey site had a much longer history than previously known, stretching back into prehistory and the Dark Ages.

Analysis of excavated pottery established precise origins of some of the artefacts, revealing very unusual trading patterns at the Abbey in the late medieval period, the most distant coming from Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, with connections to such exotic places as Tuscany, Valencia and Seville.

>> Rediscovering Glastonbury Abbey Excavations 1908 – 1979


Bronze Age finds at Pillar of Eliseg?
The Pillar of Eliseg, a scheduled ancient monument under the stewardship of CADW located near Valle Crucis Abbey, was erected upon a mound of unknown date and although the site has never previously been subject to modern archaeological investigation it is thought to have a prehistoric provenance

In September 2011 it was reported that archaeologists with Project Eliseg have been trying to establish if there any truth in Trevor Lloyd's 18th century story that the mound contained a stone cist with a skeleton along with pieces of silver, or if it is pure legend. Significantly, the site lies in an area rich in Bronze Age burials and finds, and graves of the 6th and 7th centuries AD, cut into earlier Bronze Age burials sites, are testified elsewhere in Wales.

Last year's excavations focused on the mound following a geophysical survey which indicated it appeared likely to be a Bronze Age kerb cairn. Archaeologists from Bangor and Chester University admitted the latest finds, cremated remains and bone fragments, had complicated the picture regarding the site's historical significance and make it worthy of further investigation. However, an initial search for a ring-ditch and burials placed around the mound and excavations in the surrounding field all proved negative.

Excavations during September 2011 concentrated on the west side of the mound and explored an area of possible antiquarian activity. The top of the monument appeared to have been subject to considerable disturbance, yet conclusive evidence of an antiquarian excavation proved elusive. Below this upper-layer,  the archaeologists encountered primary cairn material including spreads of charcoal and at least two cist-graves. Frustratingly, the team were unable to find a single prehistoric or early historic artefact in the primary cairn material.  Consequently, the 2011 season did not complete the excavation of the trench so the decision was made to leave the excavation of the cist-graves and the lower levels of the cairn material to a future season planned for September 2012.

>> Bronze Age finds at Pillar of Eliseg


Fall of Rome 'recorded in trees'
An extensive study of tree growth rings says there could be a link between the rise and fall of past civilisations and sudden shifts in Europe's climate. After studying data from 9,000 wooden artefacts from the past 2,500 years, researchers found that periods of warm, wet summers coincided with prosperity, while political turmoil occurred during times of climate instability.

Ulf Buntgen, a paleoclimatologist at the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape, co-author of the Journal of Science report “2500 Years of European Climate Variability and Human Susceptibility”, said, "Looking back on 2,500 years, there are examples where climate change impacted human history," 

Scientists have developed oak ring width chronologies from Central Europe that enable the dating of artefacts, historical buildings, antique artwork and furniture. After examining the growth rings preserved in wooden artefacts they were able to reconstruct annual weather patterns permitting chronologies of living and relict oaks that may reflect distinct patterns of summer precipitation and drought; trees form broad rings in good growing seasons when water and nutrients are in plentiful supply, but conversely in unfavourable conditions, during periods of drought for example, the rings grow in much tighter formation. From tree ring data they were able to develop a chronology covering the past 2,500 years, with prosperity levels in past societies linked with wet and warm summers.

The data suggests that the demise of the western Roman empire and the turmoil of the migration period appears to be linked to increased variation in climate during the period 250-600 AD. A distinct dry period in the 3rd century is reflected in a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire marked by barbarian invasion, political turmoil and economic trauma in several provinces of Gaul.

>> Did climate change contribute to the abandonment of Cadbury - Camelot?


The Staffordshire Hoard on display in US
Fresh interest was generated in the Staffordshire Hoard when it was announced that 100 artefacts were to be displayed in the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. From October 29, 2011 – March 4, 2012, scheduled to be the only U.S. appearance of the Anglo-Saxon Hoard.

The Hoard fascinates general public and Anglo-Saxon scholars alike wherever it goes with long queues wherever is is displayed. Thousands of people have so far visited the US exhibition, with attendance of more than 1,000 on the first weekend, second only to the Terracotta Army exhibition. The popularity of the Hoard has led to fresh approaches from other US venues to exhibit part of the Anglo-Saxon treasure. Funds raised from a touring display will enable the Hoard owners, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, to resource further research into the treasure.

The Hoard was discovered on July 5th 2009, when Terry Herbert, a metal detector enthusiast, discovered the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, in a farmer's field in Hammerwich, Burntwood, near Lichfield in Staffordshire. The treasure found in farmer Fred Johnson's field was a cache of gold, silver, and garnet objects from early Anglo-Saxon Mercia and valued at £3.3 million. The Staffordshire Hoard is considered to be as significant as the finds from the Anglo-Saxon royal burial site at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.

The Hoard was found to contain more than 11 pounds of gold, which accounts for nearly 75% of the metal found of some 3,500 pieces representing hundreds of complete objects. The items that could be securely identified presented a striking pattern; more than 300 sword-hilt fittings; 92 sword-pommel caps; 10 scabbard pendants - all military hardware. It is also noteworthy that there were no coins or women's jewellery, amongst the collection; three religious objects appeared to be the only non-martial pieces. Intriguingly, many of the items seemed to have been bent or broken. The Hoard then constitutes a pile of broken, elite, military hardware hidden 13 centuries ago in a politically and militarily turbulent region.

Nicholas Brooks of the University of Birmingham said "This is a hoard for male display....bling for warrior companions of the king."  But, he added, "the source is a mystery."

>> Staffordshire Gold Hoard at National Geographic

The Staffordshire Hoard Battle Site:
>> Part I:  The Spoils of War
>> Part II: The Warrior Elite


Further evidence of Anglo Saxon activity in Mercia featured in the news this year:

Anglo-Saxon Skeletons found under Patio
In November a couple were shocked to discover a number of bodies under their patio during construction work at their home in Ratley, south Warwickshire. Builders digging up the patio when the discovery of at least four bodies was made and called archaeology experts from Warwickshire County Council.

The council’s archaeology manager, Stuart Palmer, said: “The discovery of this previously unsuspected burial ground is an extremely rare and important addition to what has previously been an archaeologically invisible period of Warwickshire’s history.” 

The village of in Ratley is near to Edgehill, consequently the skeletons were initially thought have been victims of the the battle of Edgehill, where Royalist forces clashed with Parliamentarians in 1642 at the start of the English Civil War.

Analysis has revealed that the remains of at least four bodies which included two adult females, a young male and a juvenile aged between 10 and 12, predated the civil war by at least 800 years, with radiocarbon dates from two of the skeletons indicating that they died around 650-820 AD in the middle Saxon period. The skeletons are thought to be part of a much larger cemetery

During the middle Saxon period England was divided into a number of kingdoms and it is thought Ratley may have been a frontier war zone between the kingdom of the Hwicce and the eventually dominant kingdom of Mercia.


Anglo-Saxon skeletons re-buried in Bicester
Between April and November 2010 twelve skeletons were found under the car park of a church in Bicester, Oxfordshire, by builders constructing the John Paul II Centre in the grounds of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Archaeologists exhumed the remains and believe the skeletons date from late Anglo-Saxon period, between 700 and 950 AD. Early indications suggested that the bodies were buried according to Christian tradition of the time, facing east. Some of the more complete skeletons that were found, were put on display in the church for the press to view.

The car park is thought to cover part of the site of a former Anglo Saxon church dating from between 410 and 1066AD, believed to be on or near the site of the current St Edburg’s Church in Church Street, with its Saxon cemetery originally thought to be west of the development, but excavations have revealed the cemetery extending further east.

The skeletons are largely female and over the age of 35, with the remains of just one male discovered. Isotope analysis revealed they were originally from the UK and had a lot of fish in their diet. Results from carbon dating indicate a much earlier date of around 650 AD for the human remains,  providing important evidence for the town’s Anglo-Saxon origins.

Once scientific analysis was complete the Church intention was for the twelve skeletons, exhumed from what is thought to be an old Christian burial ground, to be interred in the memorial garden of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, alongside the community centre, to respect the original burial rites.

However, local archaeologists disagreed with the reburial and wanted the bones put in a museum. James Lewis of Thames Valley Archaeological Services said: "As archaeologists we'd much rather they had gone into a museum, which would be available for future analysis. There are other ways of showing respect other than reburying."

The archaeologists' took their case to the Ministry Of Justice but it was ruled the bones were not of national significance and so could be buried and the twelve Anglo-Saxon skeletons were interred in October. Speaking after the ceremony the Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham, William Kenney, said of the Anglo-Saxon deceased: "These are the remains they have left on earth and they should be treated with dignity."

The remains inside the coffin have been buried in plastic bags in case archaeologists need access to them in future.

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Wednesday 28 December 2011

New Glastonbury Thorn for Queen's Diamond Jubilee

One year on the Glastonbury Thorn fails to recover

The Glastonbury Thorn September 2011
On 9th December last year it was widely reported that the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury had been vandalised, mindlessly hacked down during the night, the most baffling event of the year.

The tree on Wearyall Hill was claimed to be a descendant of The Holy Thorn associated with the Legend of Joseph of Arimathea, who on arriving in Britain after the crucifixion landed at the Isle of Avalon and climbed Wearyall Hill and thrust his wooden staff into the ground where it took root and grew into the Glastonbury Thorn, nearly 2,000 years ago.

For those who find this legend a little hard to swallow there is the alternative suggestion that the Thorn was brought back from the Crusades and propagated by the monks of Glastonbury.

Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads cut down the tree during the English Civil War, but local people managed to salvage the roots of the original tree, hiding it in secret locations around Glastonbury. Its descendant was then replanted on Weary Hill in 1951 which survived nearly sixty years until that December night last year. Fortunately other cuttings were also grown and planted around the town, including the Abbey.

We visited Glastonbury in early September and before  returning home walked up Wearyall Hill in the pouring rain to see if the Glastonbury Thorn was recovering from its plight.  Although in a sorry state after its ordeal there were signs of fresh growth sprouting. Even so it should have made a better recovering than this some nine months after the attack, but there was still hope while it was putting out fresh growth, although alone on that hill it did seem rather vulnerable.

Shoots of Recovery September 2011
I decided not to publish any photographs at the time and draw the attention of souvenir hunters or further attacks. You can imagine my disappointment barely a week later when the Daily Mail published the story saying the local council had given up hope of recovery after some of the new growth has now been removed by suspected trophy hunters who will use them to try and grow their own Holy Thorn.

Local councillor John Coles said it will be replaced with a new one grafted from the original branches which were hacked off.

'Mr Coles said, “People don't realise the damage they are doing. I am forever removing these ribbons because they block sunlight to the trunk.”

He added, “we've had people pulling things off - the new growth and bark on the trunk. We think it would have survived if it was just left alone. There is still life in the trunk but we doubt that it will ever recover. It is very sad but we think the best thing is to replace it.”

The new tree has been grafted by experts at Kew Gardens and is likely to be planted nearby to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Holy Thorn of Glastonbury Vandalised - Arthurian Review of 2010, Clas Merdin,  28 Dec 2010
Killed off after 2,000 years - Mail Online 19 September 2011

Pictures: the Author

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Wednesday 30 November 2011

The Execution of Richard Whiting

The Last Abbot of Glastonbury Part II

“....the Abbot was arrayned, and the next daye putt to execution, with ii. other of his monkes, for the robbyng of Glastonburye Churche ; on the Torre Hill, the seyde Abbottes body beyng devyded in fower partes, and his heedd stryken off, whereof oone quarter stondyth at Welles, another at Bathe, and at Ylchester and Brigewater the rest, and his hedd upon the abbey gate at Glaston." - Letter of 16th November 1539, Lord Russell to Thomas Cromwell.

The Final days of Richard Whiting
The years from 1530 – 1539 were a politically complex time driven by a desperate monarch wanting for a legitimate male heir and financial gain. The Dissolution of the Monasteries provided a means of achieving both. Systematic eviction of the religious communities from their houses with seizure of their assets for the crown was the order of the day, the buildings extensively robbed, with lead, glass and facing stones removed for reuse elsewhere.  Glastonbury, the penultimate Abbey to be dissolved, survived until the autumn of 1539. Finally, with the fall of Waltham Abbey, the scheme faltered with the death of Thomas Cromwell, the Vicar General, sent to the block in 1540 for his disastrous involvement in the arrangement of Henry VIII's fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves, who the king divorced just six months later.

The Last Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting, along with two other monks, the Abbey treasurers John (Arthur) Thorne and Roger James (Wilfrid), being indicted of treason, were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.  On 15 November 1539, following a mock trial at Wells the previous day, the three were taken to Glastonbury. On the outskirts of the town the old Abbot was spread-eagled across a horse drawn hurdle and dragged through the streets of Glastonbury, past the desolate Abbey and up the Tor for the vile execution.

Imprisonment and execution of the head of the establishment was not unusual during the dark days of the Dissolution. John Marshall, the last Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of St. John's at Colchester, was convicted of treason and hanged on 1st December 1539. His crime was to refuse to acknowledge the King of England, Henry VIII, as head of the Church, and to resign the property of his abbey over to the crown. Indeed, on the same day as the execution of the three Glastonbury monks, the last Abbot of Reading, Hugh Cook Faringdon, along with two other monks John Rugge and John Eynon, were executed, also suffering the ultimate humiliation of the traitor's death.

Like Whiting and many other Abbots, in 1530 Faringdon signed petitions to the Pope supporting Henry VIII’s divorce and in 1536 took the oath of Royal Supremacy. The King had even called Faringdon “his own abbot”, and made him Royal Chaplain in 1532. But like Abbot Whiting, Faringdon's fall from grace in 1539 was swift, predetermined and terminal.

There were rumours that Faringdon was connected to the Exeter Conspiracy and he was accused of funding the rebels in the Northern uprisings, a brief period of Roman Catholic dissent against the Church of England and the dissolution of the monasteries following the closure of Louth Abbey resulting in the Lincolnshire Rising. It would seem that at the trial some attempt was also made to implicate Eynon in the brief York uprising, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, which followed.

Yet, ultimately the charges levelled against Faringdon were of upholding papal supremacy on three separate occasions. Faringdon had refused to retract his loyalty to Rome, “they had confessed before and written it with their own hands that they had committed high treason against the king's majesty,” He was subsequently imprisoned at the Tower and indicted of high treason and taken to Reading where, on November 15th, after being dragged through the town, he and two fellow monks, were hung, drawn and quartered before the Abbey gates. After his death the Abbey was dissolved, its lands and goods taken by the Crown with the monks, under suspicion of complicity in their Abbot's alleged treason, not awarded pensions normally provided under the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

But the Abbot of Glastonbury made no such admission; Whiting asks “forgiveness, first of God, and then of man, even of those who had most offended against justice in his person and had not rested until they had brought him to the gallows”. In their final moment, his two monks, John Thorne and Roger James, begged forgiveness of all and "took their death also very patiently." Even Pollard, the Royal Commissioner who had played no small part in orchestrating the Abbot's downfall, seemed moved by the moment, showing a rare touch of compassion, added "whose souls God pardon."

Yet, unlike the Abbots of Colchester and Reading, there appears to be no evidence of the Abbot of Glastonbury denying the King of England as head of the Church, or refusing to resign the property of his abbey to the Crown. Whiting had after all signed the petition to the Pope supporting Henry VIII’s divorce and in 1536 he had taken the oath of Royal Supremacy. Although records for Whiting's interrogation and trail are incomplete with key documents missing from archives, from what sources that have survived, the charge of treason seems to have been changed at the mock trial at Wells at the last minute to one of robbery, suggesting that treasures that the Royal Commissioners thought to be in Glastonbury Abbey could not be found. What were they searching for?

Too much of the last days of Richard Whiting fail to make any sense. Glastonbury was the largest and wealthiest Abbey in England, the Benedictine Monastery owned extensive lands and manors in the West Country. There was no attempt to preserve the Abbey for the Crown. Pillage of the Abbey treasures was the soul aim. The buildings ripped apart, lead, glass and facing stones removed, and the library ransacked with books sold off for a quick price. The King needed cash, not more property to maintain. Within a few weeks of the Abbot's execution, Abbey lands were being passed down to those who assisted the Crown in its downfall, like vultures picking over the carcass. One such was the knight Sir Thomas Dyer, member of parliament for Bridgwater during the mid-sixteenth century, who acquired lands from the former holdings of Glastonbury Abbey, obtaining Sharpham Park, which included the Abbot's manor, immediately after the dissolution in 1539 and a few years later the Manor of Street. Dyer soon held former Abbey lands at Weston, Middlezoy, Othery, Glastonbury, Greinton, and elsewhere.

The whole episode of Glastonbury Abbey's downfall and the execution of its Abbot raise some startling questions: why was Whiting and his two fellow monks executed on Glastonbury Tor; why not outside the Abbey gates as with the Abbot of Reading; why the Tor? 

The execution is reminiscent of a scene from the crucifixion. The hanging and dismemberment on the Tor possesses elements of ritual execution. One is compelled to agree with Arthurian scholar, the Avalonian Geoffrey Ashe, who knows the Tor better than many and states, “If the object was to strike terror, the place to do it was in the town. The ascent of the Tor was the act of madmen or mystics …”

In 1538 Abbot Whiting had received assurances from the Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell, that the Abbey was not under threat. At some time there appears to have been a change in the game plan. When the Royal Commissioner Richard Layton visited the abbey in 1535, he had given it a complete clean bill of health, reporting that “there is nothing notable; the brethren be so straight kept that they cannot offend,” he even praised the Abbot to Cromwell. In the same year Nicholas FitzJames, as friend of the Abbot, had written to Cromwell supporting Richard Whiting and petitioning against the Vicar General's impracticable injunctions upon Glastonbury.

Yet when he returned a few years later in 1539 Layton retracts his praise of Abbot Whiting with these odd words: “The Abbot of Glastonbury appeareth neither then nor now to have known God, nor his prince, nor any part of a good Christian man’s religion.” Further, according to a letter written by Pollard on the 16th November, Nicholas FitzJames was one of the jurors at the trial of the Glastonbury three at Wells, along with Thomas (Jack) Horner, the Abbot's steward. Friends turned into enemies, trustees became traitors. Why did fortune change for Whiting in just a few short years?

Indeed, Pollard's comments make Whiting sound like an ungodly man who worshipped something else. Clearly Whiting's faith had no bearing on the matter and the old Abbot went silently to his death like the guardian of some great secret. And with the destruction of the Abbey the Secret of Glaston, which some say to this day lies beneath the floor of the old Abbey, was irretrievably lost.

"This church, then, is certainly the oldest I know in England, and from this 
circumstance derives its name (vetusta ecclesia)... In the pavement may be seen 
on every side stones designedly inlaid in triangles and squares and figured with 
lead, under which, if I believe some sacred enigma to be contained...." 1


Continued in Part III: The Bones of Richard Whiting

Copyright © 2011 Edward Watson

1. This mysterious passage is contained in the history of the Abbey written by William of Malmesbury in the early 12th century; De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae.


Geoffrey Ashe, King Arthur’s Avalon, 1957, fiftieth anniversary edition Sutton, 2007.
Francis Aidan Gasquet, D.D. Abbot President Of The English Benedictines, The Last Abbot of Glastonbury & other essays, George Bell & Sons, 1908.

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Tuesday 15 November 2011

The Last Abbot of Glastonbury

The final days of Glastonbury Abbey and the last Abbot Richard Whiting

An upright and religious Monk
Richard Whiting was the sixtieth and last Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey during the years 1525 to 1539. The most likely date for his birth has been suggested as 1459; he was probably in his mid-sixties when he commenced his tenure as Abbot. Unfortunately for Whiting he had been elected to preside over a community of Benedictine monks at the most turbulent time in English ecclesiastical history; the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII. He was executed for unclear reasons on Glastonbury Tor on 15 November 1539.

Whiting's family was of a west-country origin and distantly connected with that of Bishop Stapeldon of Exeter, the generous founder of Exeter College, Oxford, who possessed considerable estates in Devon and Somerset. Whiting came of a junior branch of the family from the valley of Wrington. Members of this family were destined to work in the church; another Richard, probably an uncle, was chamberlain at the monastery of Bath, and a Jane Whiting had taken the habit as a nun in the convent of Wilton. Later, two of Abbot Whiting's nieces were admitted into religious orders at the English Franciscan house at Bruges.

Whiting went on to Cambridge to complete his education, taking his MA in 1483. After completing his degree the young Benedictine monk returned to his monastery at Glastonbury and was probably occupied here in teaching. Whiting received the minor order of acolyte in the month of September, 1498. In the two succeeding years he was made sub-deacon and then deacon. On the 6th March, 1501, he was ordained into the priesthood at Wells by Bishop Cornish in the now destroyed chapel of the Blessed Virgin.

For the next 25 years, we know very little of Whiting's activities; it is likely he worked in seclusion carrying out his duties at the Abbey. In 1505, he returned to Cambridge and took his final degree as Doctor in Theology. At the monastery he held the office of Chamberlain, which would give him the care of the dormitory, lavatory, and wardrobe of the community, and placed him over the numerous officials and servants necessary to this office in so important and vast an establishment as Glastonbury then was.

In February 1525 Abbot Bere died after worthily presiding over the Abbey for more than thirty years. After failing to agree on a successor the Glastonbury monks charged Cardinal Wolsey to make the choice of their abbot. After obtaining permission form the King, Wolsey declared that Whiting was his choice as Abbot, stating that he was "an upright and religious monk, a provident and discreet man, and a priest commendable for his life, virtues and learning." Whiting had shown himself to be, "watchful and circumspect" in both spirituals and temporals, and had proved that he possessed "ability and determination to uphold the rights of his monastery.” As a result of his election as head of the Abbey he obtained a distinguished seat in the House of Lords. John Leland, antiquary to Henry VIII, referred to Whiting as "a man truly upright and of spotless life and my sincere friend."

Five years after Abbot Whiting's election, the fall of Cardinal Wolsey opened the way for the advancement of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, and one of the strongest advocates of the English Reformation, the English church's break with the papacy in Rome. On the fall of the old order he built up his own fortune. “For ten years England groaned beneath his rule - in truth it was a reign of terror unparalleled in the history of the country.” As chief minister to King Henry from 1532 to 1540, remorseless and tenacious in pursuing his aims, Cromwell 's power grew as he became the chief political contriver of  religious change in England.

The King's Divorce and the Suppression of the Religious Houses
In 1530 a curious document was presented to Abbot Whiting which turned out to be the beginning of the end for him and his monastery. The letter addressed to Pope Clement VII called for the papacy to dissolve King Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The letter had been drawn up at the King's court and was now being passed around the  Spiritual Peers and the Lords Temporal for endorsement. Whiting, like most of his fellow subjects, did not approve. Henry had grown frustrated by his lack of a male heir and since 1526 had begun to separate from Catherine because he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, one of the Queen's ladies, and sister to one of the King's mistresses.

The Abbot of Glastonbury did eventually sign the letter along with twenty one other Abbots but Rome still refused to grant the King a divorce. By December 1532 Anne was pregnant and insisted on the status of Queen. Now relying on the devious counsel of Thomas Cromwell, Henry was forced to act to avoid any issues to the legitimacy of the child. In January 1533 Anne and Henry were secretly married. Although the King's marriage to Catherine was not dissolved, yet in the King's eyes it had never existed in the first place, so he was free to marry whoever he wanted. On May 23 the marriage of Henry and Catherine was officially proclaimed invalid by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the English Reformation.

With the conclusion of Henry's divorce case came the end of the peaceful years of Abbot Whiting's rule. Now began the anxious days which were to end for him in execution on Glastonbury Tor as a traitor.

As part of the King's scheme for a National Church, enforcing a break with Rome, Cromwell inaugurated a policy of dissolving the religious houses and confiscating their wealth. Dissolution of abbeys and convents was nothing new. The British monarchy had sold French monastic possessions in England seized during the Hundred Years War. Even Thomas Wolsey had closed a number of small priories. However, on these occasions the proceeds had been used for charitable courses. But in 1532 with Cromwell's rise to power a new precedent was set with the Augustinian house at Aldgate being required to sign a deed of gift to the monarch. Cromwell saw this as a legitimate means to solving the King's financial problems.

On 3rd November, 1534, the "Act of Supremacy" was hurried through Parliament, and a second statute made it treason to deny this new royal prerogative. Resistance was futile with the oath of royal supremacy taken wherever it was tendered, and Glastonbury was no exception. Abbot Whiting and fifty-one of the Glastonbury community attached their names to the required declaration, renouncing obedience to the Pope. However, this should not be misconstrued as an act of betrayal to their faith by the Benedictine community. Indeed, many did not see the oath of royal supremacy over the Church of England as being derogatory to Rome. Whereas King Henry was seen as the head of the Temporal church he was never seen as the head of the Spiritual church by many religious houses.

Within a year of general oath taking the whole approach to religious houses changed in 1535. Cromwell, now Henry’s vicegerent, was responsible for the day-to-day running of the Church and ordered that all religious houses should be visited by one of his representatives. He constructed a program of inspection, known as the ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’ to determine how much property was owned by the Church in England and Wales. Royal commissioners toured the religious houses, the methods they employed, leave no doubt that the real object was the destruction of the monasteries under the cloak of reformation, then submitted a report, of questionable accuracy, back to Cromwell.

The ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’ combined with the inspections proved to be a difficult problem for the religious houses. Cromwell claimed the intention was not to abolish monasticism but to purify it. Many of the visits were carried out by 'royal commissioners' Thomas Legh and Richard Layton, perhaps the most trusted  of Cromwell's employees. These two ambitious men were aware of the result required by Cromwell, their reports appropriately tailored accordingly to provide the information he desired.

Following the 'inspections', Cromwell set out injunctions that were so exacting in detail that essentially they were meant to be unworkable. In the hands of Cromwell's agents they were, as they were designed to be, intolerable. And at Glastonbury, as elsewhere, the injunctions were more than simply impracticable, but restrictive in the principles of religious discipline. Abbot Whiting, like so many religious superiors at this time, petitioned for some mitigation. Nicholas Fitzjames, a neighbour, dispatched an earnest letter to Cromwell in support of the abbot's petition.

Duly, the royal commissioner Richard Layton arrived at Glastonbury on Saturday, 21st August 1535. After his inspection of the Abbey he  wrote to Cromwell stating he could find nothing untoward  under Abbot Whiting's rule; “At Bruton and Glastonbury there is nothing notable; the brethren be so straight kept that they cannot offend : but fain they would if they might, as they confess, and so the fault is not with them."

The act of suppression of 1536 had condemned houses with an annual income of less than £200, suggesting they might wish to voluntarily surrender. However, by 1538 rumour was rife of the forthcoming dissolution of even the greatest religious houses, with one after another falling into the King's hands all across the country. However, Cromwell issued a letter denying the intention of general suppression of all the monasteries. This letter could scarcely have done much to reassure Abbot Whiting as to Cromwell's real intentions, in view of the obvious facts which each day made them ever more clear. Bath and Keynsham, had fallen shortly after the Christmas that year with Benedictine Athelney and Hinton Charterhouse following, where upon rigid questioning on the matter of royal-supremacy one of the Hinton community had been imprisoned for "affirming the Bishop of Rome to be Vicar of Christ.” For weeks the royal wreckers swarmed over Somerset, like a biblical plague, "defacing, destroying, and prostrating the churches, cloisters, belfreys, and other buildings of the late monasteries; and the roads were worn with carts carrying away the lead melted from the roofs, barrels of broken bell-metal, and other plunder."

By the beginning of 1539, Glastonbury was the only religious house left standing in the whole county of Somerset; Abbot Whiting must have been aware of the fate that awaited him.

The Final Days of Glastonbury Abbey
In April 1539 The Second Act of Suppression came in to force that included a retrospective clause covering the illegal suppression of the greater monasteries which had already passed into the king's hands, which granted to Henry all monasteries which shall hereafter happen to be dissolved, suppressed, renounced, relinquished, forfeited, given up or come unto the king's highness. The Act included a clause referring to such other religious houses as "shall happen to come to the king's highness by attainder or attainders of treason.” By the summer of 1539 few of the great houses remained undissolved and it is surprising that such an attractive house as Glastonbury had survived this long. But after several reassurances to the Abbot there seemed to be a change of plan and the Vicar General revealed his end game.

The sequence of events from September through November are not all together clear and a full account of the beginning of the end of Glastonbury Abbey and Abbot Whiting's final days is not available due to the absence of key documents amongst the records relating to the closing years of Cromwell's administration. Yet, among Cromwell's memorandum, still extant in his own handwriting, dated from the beginning of September, 1539, the Vicar General's intention are quite unambiguous; "Item, for proceeding against the abbots of Reading, Glaston and the other, in their own countries."

On 16th September in a letter to Cromwell, indicating future intent, Richard Layton requests his pardon for praising Abbot Whiting at his previous visit in 1535; "The Abbot of Glastonbury, appeareth neither then nor now to have known God, nor his prince, nor any part of a good Christian man's religion."

Three days later, on Friday, September 19th, the royal commissioners, Layton, Pollard and Moyle,  arrived at Glastonbury at about ten o'clock in the morning without warning. The Abbot was at his grange at Sharpham, about a mile from the monastery. Whiting was questioned there then taken to the Abbey. In his study they found a book of arguments against the King's divorce and a copy of the life of Thomas Becket. They sent him, a weak and sickly man, to the Tower of London so that Cromwell might interrogate him further.

A week later, on 28th September, the royal commissioners write to Cromwell saying that they have found treasures and monies hidden in secret places in the Abbey, sufficient to have "begun a new abbey.” They concluded by asking what the King wished to have done in respect of the two monks who were the treasurers of the church, John (Arthur) Thorne and Roger James (Wilfrid).

The commissioners gathered, or constructed, statements from local informers about the Abbot's treasonable opinions. On the 2nd October the inquisitors write again to say that they have discovered evidence of "divers and sundry treasons" committed by Abbot Whiting, "the certainty whereof shall appear unto your lordship in a book herein enclosed, with the accusers' names put to the same, which we think to be very high and rank treasons." The book has long since disappeared but creases in the original letter seem to indicate it was enclosed therein.

By now, with Whiting in the Tower, the monks were quickly dispatched and Glastonbury Abbey already considered a royal possession. But from the very beginning of the suppression Whiting had co-operated with the king and his agents. He had signed the petition to the Pope concerning the royal divorce and subscribed to the oath accepting royal supremacy. Yet Cromwell's notes reveal the Vicar General had already decided the Abbot's fate; in a memorandum dated before the end of October, he wrote: 'Item, the Abbot of Glaston, to be tried at Glaston and also executed there with his complices'

Whiting should have been tried by parliament by act of attainder but this was totally ignored in his case; evidently his sentence had been decided before Parliament came together. The House was due to have sat on 1st November and would have considered the charges against Whiting at that time but assembly was delayed till the arrival of the King's fourth wife, Ann of Cleeves. Whiting would remain in the Tower till then.

Pollard took the frail old Abbot, who must have been nearing eighty years of age by now, back to Somerset on 14th November where he was taken immediately into the Bishop's Palace at Wells, without giving the condemned man even time to recover from his journey. Lord Russell had assembled a jury, which included John Sydenham, Thomas Horner, and Nicholas Fitzjames, the same who, but a year or two before, had written to Cromwell on Abbot Whiting's behalf. Friends and allies turned against the Abbot for a share in the rich booty to be had at the Abbey. Pollard directed the indictment, which Cromwell had drafted based on evidence revealed during the secret interrogations conducted during Whiting's two months' imprisonment in the Tower. From the crowd gathered at Wells tenants, and others, came forward to testify against him with new accusations of wrongs and injuries committed against them by the Abbot. No doubt they had been paid their piece of silver by Cromwell's agents. At the last minute the charge seemed to have been changed from treason to one of robbery. Whiting, absurdly accused of robbing his own abbey, was tried amongst common felons, four accused of rape and burglary who were condemned to hang the next day. The records of the trial fail to make clear the charges, or indeed the verdict. No defence or cross examination was allowed; it appears to proceed immediately to the execution.

This was clearly no more than a mock trial; as we have seen above, Abbot Whiting's fate was already settled, at Cromwell's own hand, before he left the Tower, the Vicar General, acting alone as prosecuting counsel, jury and judge, had already reached his decision. Cromwell ruled Whiting guilty and determined that he should suffer before all the world the ultimate indignity and destined for him the gruesome death of a traitor in the sight of his own subjects who had known and loved him for many years on the scene of his own former glory. Cromwell decreed the Abbot was to be hung, drawn and quartered at Glastonbury.

The following morning, 15th November, Whiting and the Abbey treasurers John Thorne and Roger James, were taken to Glastonbury. On the outskirts of the town he was spread-eagled across a hurdle which was tethered to a horse, and then dragged through the streets of Glastonbury, past his beloved Abbey and up the Tor where the gallows had been erected by the side of St Michael's tower.  Pollard writes that the Glastonbury three "took their deaths very patiently” and added "whose souls God pardon."

Whiting's lifeless body was cut down, the head hacked off and his corpse divided into four parts. One part despatched to Wells, Bath, Ilchester, and the fourth to Bridgewater, whilst the head was fixed over the Abbey gates.

Following the fate of Glastonbury, only one more monastery was to be dissolved, that of Waltham Abbey. At the start of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, there were over 800 religious houses in Britain. By 1540 there were none with more than 15,000 monks and nuns dispersed and the buildings taken into ownership by the Crown to be sold off or leased out. The process had taken just four short years. Many of these religious communities owed their very existence to the wave of monastic enthusiasm that had swept across England and Wales in the 11th and 12th centuries, many as with Glastonbury, claiming to built upon early Celtic or Anglo-Saxon foundations. Glastonbury appeared early in that wave with tradition claiming it to be the site of the first Christian church in England, established by Joseph of Arimathea in the first century AD. It is difficult to disagree with the description of the suppression of the monasteries as simply "an enormous scheme for filling the royal purse."

Less than a year after Whiting's execution, justice, perhaps in part at least, was had when Cromwell fell from favour after arranging the King's disastrous marriage to  Anne of Cleeves. He was charged with treason and heresy and executed on Tower Hill on 28 July 1540. With Cromwell's death the  Dissolution of the Monasteries quickly ran out of steam.

True to his faith to the end, Richard Whiting is considered a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church, which beatified him on 13 May 1896.  Beatification provides the title of "Blessed," a recognition accorded by the Catholic Church of a dead person's entrance into Heaven and the third of the four steps in the canonization process, the act by which the Christian church declares a deceased person to be a saint.

Copyright © 2011 Edward Watson

Continued in: Part II - The Execution of Richard Whiting
                     Part III - The Bones of Richard Whiting


According to a traditional account Thomas Horner, one of the jurors at Whiting's mock trial at Wells, which sent the old Abbot to be hung, drawn and quartered on Glastonbury Tor, is said to be the Abbot's steward, famed in the “Little Jack Horner” nursery rhyme, first published in1725, but no doubt in circulation like all the common English nursery rhymes long  before they appeared in print.

It is rumoured that the Abbot tried to bribe the King by sending his steward, Jack Horner, with a gift of twelve title deeds to various west country manorial estates. The deeds were said to have been secreted in a pie to thwart thieves. The story of valuable documents being hidden under a pie crust is not so far fetched as it may at first appear. Highwaymen were common in these times and travellers often hid their valuables by sewing them into garment hems and concealing them in cakes and the like. Horner is said to have opened the pie during the journey and extracted the deeds of the Manor of Mells, 15 miles north east of Glastonbury, the 'plum' of the twelve manors which included lead mines in the Mendip Hills, which may be  an allusion to the Latin for lead, 'plumbum' (Pb). The remaining eleven manors were handed over to the crown but to no avail.

Following the destruction of the Abbey, Horner moved into the Manor of Mells. If there is any truth in the tradition at all Horner was probably rewarded with Mells for aiding the conviction of the Abbot of Glastonbury. The Manor of Mells became the property of the Horner family who lived there until the 20th century. While records do indicate that Thomas Horner became the owner of the manor, both his descendants and subsequent owners of Mells Manor have claimed that the legend is untrue.

Francis Aidan Gasquet, D.D. Abbot President Of The English Benedictines - The Last Abbot of Glastonbury, George Bell & Sons, 1908.
Richard Watson Dixon, History of the Church of England Volume II, Clarendon Press, 1902.
Geoffrey Ashe - King Arthur’s Avalon, 1957, fiftieth anniversary edition Sutton, 2007.
James Carley,  Glastonbury Abbey, The Holy House at the head of the Moors Adventurous, 1988, revised edition Gothic Image, 1996.

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Monday 17 October 2011

The Legend of Alderley Edge

The small Cheshire village of Alderley Edge, about 5 miles north west of Macclesfield and some 12 miles south of Manchester on the A34 main trunk road, is steeped in folklore and legend. The village clings to the bottom of the steep sandstone escarpment overlooking the Cheshire Plain, along the B5087, known simply as 'The Edge'. Copper and lead mining are known to have taken place during the Bronze Age and Roman times and continued again from the 1690s into the 1920s. It is an area rich in legend and history.

The name Alderley first appears in 1086 as 'Aldredelie'. Several versions of the origin of the place name are known, one says it derived from 'Aldred 'and 'leah' meaning 'Aldred's Clearing'. However, the association with Alder trees persists in some accounts. The Alder is a mystical tree once favoured by the ancient Druids and also sacred to Fairy folk. The tree is reputed to be one of the sacred trees of modern witchcraft, indeed Alder is often called "the wood of the witches". A witches coven is said to have left The Edge in the 1960's after being exposed by a local paper.

The mystical Alder was venerated in medieval Welsh poetry. In the 14th century poem The Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu) from the  Book of Taliesin, the Alder leads the line into battle. In a later manuscript version of the same tale Amaethon steals animals from the Otherworld and a battle ensues between Arawn and Bran from Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld, and the Children of Don. The battle is over the theft of a white roebuck and a whelp, both animals which appear at the beginning of the Mabinogi as the possessions of Arawn, Lord of Annwn. Amaethon prevails when his brother Gwydion successfully guesses the name of his adversary, Bran, by the fact that he has Alder sprigs on his shield.

Mining activity over millennia at Alderley Edge may have led to some of the early traditions as miners were superstitious people; anyone who entered the bowels of the earth and journeyed amongst the underground spirits to retrieve lumps of rock that could be turned into metal generated a certain aura. Mysteriously, several ancient gold bars have been found here.

Nearby is the town of Wilmslow, home to Lindow Common in which lies the Black Lake, the name derived from the Welsh 'llyn ddu', a surviving indicator of a once much larger and wetter expanse of land known as Lindow Moss, an ancient peat bog. It was here on 1 August 1984 that a body was found in the bog by peat cutters. Known as Lindow Man, the body appears to have been a 1st century AD victim of Druid sacrifice found with mistletoe pollen in his stomach and suffered the classic Celtic triple death; he was strangled, hit on the head, and his throat cut.

Many people visit the Edge each year drawn by it's legends and history, with many unusual sites along the escarpment linked to the story of the The Iron Gates:

“Once upon a time, the story goes, a farmer from Mobberley was on his way to Macclesfield market riding a white mare which he hoped to sell. Whilst walking along the ridge road, he was stopped by a grey-bearded man who offered to buy the horse, but the farmer refused, saying he could get a better price at the market. The old man told the farmer that he would not sell the white mare at the market and he would be at this spot again that evening when the farmer returned. Although the mare had been admired by many at the market he farmer failed to sell the horse and, cursing his luck, made the journey back home. At the same point, the old man appeared again, offering the farmer the money, which this time he accepted. The old man told the farmer to follow him with the horse though the woods on the Edge to a rock on which he laid his hands on it. The old man banged on the ground with his stick and, to the farmer’s shock, the rock opened up to reveal a set of Iron Gates. The old man beckoned the farmer to follow him through the gates into a large cavern where he saw countless knights and many white horses, all asleep. The old man explained that all these sleeping warriors were ready to awake and fight should England fall into danger, but were in need of one more white horse. The farmer was given a purse of gold for his white mare and ran out of the cave. As soon as he was out of the gates they crashed shut behind him and the rock returned to its place and no one has identified the site since”.

The exact location of the Iron Gates is unknown, but they are supposed to lie somewhere between Stormy Point and the Holy Well. There are several versions of the story but the first literary reference appears in 1805 when a newspaper, the Manchester Mail, published the legend, said to have been collected from local tradition, but mainly from an old man named Thomas Broadhurst. The newspaper account added that the tale was told by a Parson Shrigley who died in 1776, showing that oral versions of the legend were already in existence in the north Cheshire area. Later in 1805 a letter was published in the same newspaper from a reader claiming to be the "Perambulator" stating that he knew the location of the Iron Gates.

By Sevenfirs and Goldenstone
The Legend of Alderley, complete with a version of the myth of the sleeping hero, kick started Alan Garner's literary career, the tale being the inspiration behind “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen”, written between 1956 and 1958. Garner subtitled this book “A Tale of Alderley”, a story in which two children enter an underground kingdom, presided over by Cadellin the wizard who watches over sleeping knights, until the hour of the country's greatest need. Garner continued the theme in "Weirdstone” into the sequel “The Moon of Gomrath”.

In 2007 Garner delivered a lecture to the Temenos Academy which gave an account of the origin of the legend as far as Garner was concerned and published three years later as “By Sevenfirs and Goldenstone: An Account of the Legend of Alderley” (Temenos Academy, 2010). The 20 page booklet is Garner's account of the local lore of Alderley covered in his tale. The addition of a map would have been a useful addition for anyone wishing to trace out the route on the ground.

The Wizard's Well
Garner is evidently drawing on an oral account, in a local context, supplied by his grandfather, a blacksmith, seemingly without being aware of 19th century written versions of the tale. He goes on to tell the reader how his grandfather told him the story about the farmer from nearby Mobberley and his white mare he is taking to sell at Macclesfield market. In this booklet Garner attempts to identify the route of the tale from the location where the farmer first encounters the grey-bearded old man at Thieves’ Hole, and along the journey across the land by Seven Firs and Goldenstone to Stormy Point and Saddlebole. In his efforts to trace this journey across The Edge, Garner came across peculiarities in the form of mounds, big stones and significantly, boundaries.

Garner identifies Thieves' Hole as a hollow way, a linear earthwork, suggesting it could have been an ancient border, a land division, its original purpose now lost.  He found a reference in a Charter for Rolleston, Staffordshire, dating to 1008 AD, describing a boundary marker as 'to the thorn where the thieves lie'.

He interprets this as a place of execution and/or burial, as Anglo-Saxons favoured boundaries for such things.

The Edge possesses six enigmatic shallow, circular, flat-topped mounds, roughly three feet high and twenty five feet in length, all of unknown age. He conjectures that they could be prehistoric burials or later additions, perhaps such as a folly. Three of these mounds are passed by on the journey from Thieves' Hole to Saddlebole, one is named Seven Firs. He takes the reader on the journey past Goldenstone, a free standing block of conglomerate sandstone with a high quartz content. He states the earliest mention of the Goldenstone that he can find is in a Perambulation of the boundaries of Over Alderley and Nether Alderley dated 1598, “a gear stone called the golden stone on the north side of the wain way.” He suggests this stone bears evidence of prehistoric tooling and is puzzled why a grey stone should be described as golden. Rejecting other possible meanings Garner finds that in Old English place names 'glyden' can mean tribute, which he prefers. Behind Goldenstone is the second flat-topped mound.

The route continues to Stormy Point where it touches the third flat-topped mound. Nearby is the Devil's Grave, an artificial chamber forty feet across, entered by way of a trench at one side. Garner postulates that 'Devil' names are often associated with the naming of strangeness and often used for early works in the landscape; concluding that a suitable description would be “the tricky trench”. Close by the Devil's Grave is a mound called Pikelow, an ancient burial mound, significantly on the boundary of three parishes and four townships.

The Edge
The final leg of the journey to Saddlebole is the most intriguing our guide informs us. Saddlebole is  a spur from Stormy Point. Garner suggests Old English 'bolla' can mean a round hollow, a bowl or a crucible. He adds that Boles or Bolestids were places used in ancient times before smelting mills were invented. Metallurgy is a magical and dangerous art he tells us and as such concentrations of metals in the soil prohibits the growth of vegetation, suggesting that evidence of lead mining will be found at Saddlebole.

Alongside the track from Saddlebole to Stormy Point, again a multiple boundary, is the rock of the Iron Gates. Excavations in 1999 revealed an earlier structure running along the boundary ridge, consisting of wall of rubble and cut stone, travelling as far as Stormy Point. From this Garner interprets the meaning of Iron Gates as the 'stone way'. Recent Archaeology has interpreted the ditch as a prehistoric route along the crest of The Edge, running from the highest point, Beacon mound, to Lindow Moss and Mobberley and in the other direction toward Macclesfield.

Today a farm track crosses the ditch at right angles; it is here, Garner deduces, that the farmer first met the old man with the grey beard. He suggests that if the track did indeed pass over Thieves' Hole then there would have been an intersection at this point. Crossroads are liminal places where boundaries between worlds are breached, the reason why, according to Garner, boundaries play a significant part in the tale; we are clearly dealing not only with a physical but also a spiritual topography; divisions without dimensions, he adds, symbolise the supernatural in space. He argues that if a crossroads did not exist on Thieves' Hole then the old man would not and could not have met the farmer there. Indeed, it is here at Thieves' Hole that the approach to the Sleeping Hero begins.

“Accounting for the deeper nature of the Edge is not easy”, Garner says, and for him the tale is set deep within the psyche of his childhood, a tale of the supernatural in which boundaries between the worlds are breached. As he puts it, “The Edge is a remarkable 'Thing', which stands out when seen from both the plain and the Pennines. It is, of itself 'liminal'...... a special, a holy or  a haunted place....”

The Wizard of Edge Inn
Further variations say that the grey-bearded old man was the wizard Merlin and the sleeping men were King Arthur and his Knights. There is a restaurant on The Edge is called "The Wizard Inn". There is evidence of the hand of man at play here which has added a little antiquity to The Edge; a rock along the path has an old man's face and inscription carved in it and a stone trough below on the ground. This is the Wizard's Well, and the face has come to be known as that of the wizard Merlin. Below is written "drink of this and take thy fill, for the water falls by the wizard's will". The carved letters are clearly not ancient, although the carving of the wizard's face may be older; these are more likely recent(-ish) additions to the local lore. The Wizard's Well is one of several springs along the edge such as the Holy Well and the Wishing Well. They may well be ancient or the product of more recent mining activity.

Deep within the woods on the path between Stormy Point and the Beacon lies the Druid's Circle. This circle of recumbent stones has fooled some antiquarians into believing it an authentic prehistoric work, but, according to Garner, the Druid's Circle is the work of his great-great grandfather Robert Garner, a local stonemason, who also created the inscription above the Wizard's Well. The Druid's Circle is therefore barely 200 years old.

The Sleeping King
The Legend of Alderley is clearly a local variation on the Sleeping King theme, well known throughout nations featuring their legendary heroes, usually accompanied by their primary band of warriors, and always sleeping in remote places: mountain caves; remote islands; even supernatural realms. The hero is frequently a historical figure of noted martial prowess in the history of the nation where the mountain is located and will return in their time of greatest need.

The motif of the Sleeping King is indeed ancient and may have been cradled in the enigmatic island of Ogygia mentioned in Homer's 8th century BC “Odyssey”; which, writing in the 1st century AD, the Greek historian Plutarch says is the place where Cronus is imprisoned and lies sleeping in a cave. In Celtic realms we find King Arthur as the legendary sleeping hero so it should be of no surprise that we find him in residence at Alderley. The earliest reference we find to Arthur as the enchanted prisoner is under the Stone of Echymeint in the Triad "The Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain" from the 13th century Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Triads of the Island of Britain) with a similar tale, albeit with Mabon in the role of prisoner, in the earlier 11th century tale of Culhwch and Olwen.    

Versions of the legend of the Sleeping King residing in a hollow hill abound, an early example comes from South Cadbury hill, Somerset, regarded as the original Camelot by some, first recorded by the Welsh antiquary Elis Gruffudd, who died in 1552, but perhaps the most well known with Arthurian traditions is concerned with the Eildon Hills, a triple peaked hill, on the south side of Melrose on the Scottish Borders. On the north hill is the largest hill fort in Scotland, once thought to be the power base of the Selgovae as recorded by the Roman geographer Ptolemy. On the middle hill is a large Bronze Age cairn and a monument  to Sir Walter Scott. In the 1st century the Roman army built the massive fort of Trimontium, named after the three peaks, at the foot of the hill on the bank of the River Tweed.

Eildon Hills
It is at the hollow Eildon Hills that a horse-dealer by the name of Canonbie Dick meets a stranger on Bowden Moor. Opposite the Moor are the central and southern peaks of the Eildon hills, the col between them called Lucken Hare. It is here that Dick and the stranger pass through a hidden doorway into a huge cavern under the main peak. Here Arthur and his knights, fully armed along with their horses, lay sleeping. Next day Dick told his story to some shepherds then dropped dead. Needless to say, no one has found the cave since.

We find echoes of these legends in the tale of The Queen of Elfland by Thomas the Rhymer, a 13th century Scottish laird and prophet from Erceldoune (modern Earlston, Berwickshire). One day, as Thomas sat beneath the Eildon Tree near Melrose, he heard the tinkling of silver bells and the sound of a horse's hooves. The beautiful Queen of Elfland rode by on her white horse. Thomas fell under her charm and journeyed deep within the hollow Eildon Hills to the 'Fairy Otherworld'. He remained there for seven years and acquired the gift of prophesy. When he returned to the mortal world he found he was unable to tell a lie and became known as 'True Thomas'. In one version of the tale, Thomas appears to be the stranger who drew Canonbie Dick into the cave under the Eildon Hills. Some even say that Thomas became immortal and still lives gathering horses for the sleeping knights within the hollow hills.

This is classic Celtic Mythology, from which we see the Otherworld Journey, typically the Irish echtrae, where the hero is lured to the Otherworld by the goddess of the tale, usually bearing a flowering silver branch of apples, or silver bells, as an indicator of their Otherworldy status. Thomas' abductor is no less than the Celtic Great Queen goddess Rigantona, known as Rhiannon of the Mabinogion, who rides past on her white horse displaying clear parallels with Epona, the Gallic horse goddess.

The hills at Melrose have been associated with Arthurian themes since at least the 12th century. It is here that Chrétien de Troyes, probably following an earlier tradition, locates the Dolorous Mountain. Earlier in the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth connects the Dolorous Mountain with Mount Agned, which he identifies as the Castle of The Maidens, thought to be Castle Rock at Edinburgh. Significantly, according to the battle list in the 9th century Historia Brittonum Arthur's 11th battle was fought at Agned and in The Black Book Of Carmarthen the incomplete poem "Pa Gur yv y Porthur” (What man is the Gatekeeper/Porter?) Arthur is pitched on the slopes of Mynyd Eiddyn (Edinburgh) fighting dog-headed men (Cynvyn). All one and the same?

From the above we can postulate that the Arthurian association with the Sleeping King in the Hollow Hill was extant in Scotland and the borders from at least the 13th century and a similar tale was in existence as far south as Somerset by at least the 16th century. The attachment of the persona’s of Arthur and Merlin to the Legend of Alderley appears to be a much later addition. The first literary account of the legend with Arthur appeared when a version by James Roscoe appeared in the Blackwoods Magazine in 1839. We cannot ascertain a date for the oral transmission of the tale to Cheshire but the Legend of Alderley appears to have arrived late, with the earliest written accounts appearing in the 19th century, although traditional accounts, complete with local variants, were no doubt circulating prior to that.

From all this we are left to ponder if Alderley Edge is a landscape created by the legend or a legend created out of the landscape?

Copyright © 2011 Edward Watson


Alan Garner - By Sevenfirs and Goldenstone: An Account of the Legend of Alderley, Temenos Academy, 2010.
Doug Pickford - Myths and Legends of East Cheshire and the Moorlands, Sigma Press, 1992.

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Sunday 9 October 2011

The Green Knight's Chapel for Sale

Last year it was reported that the Peak District National Park Authority (NPA) had put the Staffordshire Roaches estate up for sale.

The Roaches is situated in Staffordshire just north of the town of Leek, 'The Queen of the Moorlands', in the south west of the Peak District National Park and one of England’s most popular walking spots, renowned climbing venue and home to Lud’s Church, the site identified as The Green Knight's Chapel.

It is notoriously difficult to positively identify geographical sites from Arthurian literature but one site that does fit perfectly is Lud’s Church as the location of the Green Chapel from the late 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight's Chapel has been identified as Lud’s Church because of the poet’s use of dialect words and rare topographical terms used in the poem appear in place-names all very local to the Roaches and this area of the Staffordshire Moorlands.

"Then the knight spurred Gringalet, and rode adown the path close in by a bank beside a grove. So he rode through the rough thicket, right into the dale, and there he halted, for it seemed him wild enough. No sign of a chapel could he see, but high and burnt banks on either side and rough rugged crags with great stones above. An ill-looking place he thought it."
Lud's Church is an huge natural chasm in the rock on the hillside above Gradbach, on the north side of the ridge, formed by a landslip which has let a cleft which is over 20 yards high in places and over 100 yards long, though in some places only a couple of yards wide. The place has many myths and legends associated with it, most famously Gawain and the Green Knight, were it is said that here the hero of the Arthurian romance slew the Green Knight, symbolic of death, rebirth and fertility.

The estate also boasts the site of the castle of the Green Knight; situated on the Staffordshire side of the River Dane, Swythamley Hall was originally a medieval hunting lodge belonging to the Abbey of Dieulacres. Swythamley Hall has been identified as 'Hautdesert',  in the classic medieval poem.

It is thought the poem may have been written by a Cistercian monk at the nearby Dieulacres Abbey, just north of Leek, known as 'The Pearl Poet' who's works exist in a single manuscript, in a dialect particular to the north west Midlands of England. The manuscript contains four poems: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Patience, and Purity. They appear to have been written by a single author; and of these, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is considered to be one of the classics of English literature. Like the anonymous poet, nothing now remains of the Abbey.

The NPA has owned the area since 1980 but is now looking for partners to help manage the area's 975 acres after having its government grant cut by five percent and selling the land is one option that is being considered by the authority. The moorland estate includes a former gamekeepers grade II listed cottage which is let to the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) for use as a climbing hut.  Much of the land is currently let on a grazing tenancy.

The Estate is designated at national and European level as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area.  It is also protected in existing and future planning policies as what is known as a Natural Zone. The moorland is important for a whole range of National Park objectives, including its biodiversity, cultural heritage, natural beauty, recreation and tourism values.

The NPA has three options; a partnership to jointly manage the estate; leasing it to another organisation, or selling the whole estate. If the estate is sold it will be with strict rules to ensure it's continuing protection. The NPA advertised in Summer 2010 for partners to help it to better manage the Roaches Estate and received nine expressions of interest, a mixture of environmental and land management organisations and individuals, some proposing a lease, some a purchase. Likley partners were thought to be The National Trust, The Wildlife Trust, the British Mountaineering Council and the RSPB.

Access to the Stafforshire Moorlands site will be maintained as most of the area has open access under the Countryside Rights of Way Act. However, any potential sale cannot rule out the possibility of restricted access or charging for access.

The BMC and the Ramblers Association have voiced there concerns to restricted access and the Staffordshire Moorlands District Council has come out and opposed the sale, vowing to do everything possible to ensure that local concerns are addressed and that it is never closed to the public.

"The knight turned his steed to the mound, and lighted down and tied the rein to the branch of a linden; and he turned to the mound and walked round it, questioning with himself what it might be. It had a hole at the end and at either side, and was overgrown with clumps of grass, and it was hollow within as an old cave or the crevice of a crag; he knew not what it might be."

The NPA has set out draft objectives for how it wants to see the Roaches protected and enhanced by any new partner, which it has sent for consultation to local councils, neighbours and interest groups, providing the best outcome for the future of the Roaches, including conserving its wildlife, heritage and landscape, ensuring open access, increasing understanding of its special qualities, looking after its farmland to high conservation standards and managing traffic. Shooting rights are specifically excluded.

The Roaches and Lud's Church should be in safe hands; three interested parties have submitted formal tenders for managing the Estate; the Land Trust, The National Trust and the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust.  The NPA is delighted with the quality of all three submissions.  The tenders are presently being analysed, and a decision on the preferred party is expected to be made by the end of 2011.

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